Turkey-style pretext used to arrest critic in Azerbaijan

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the arrest of Faiq Amirov, the financial director of the leading opposition daily Azadlig, and calls for the withdrawal of the ludicrous charges brought against him.

Amirov, who is also an adviser to the head of the opposition Popular Front Party, was arrested on 20 August and was charged two days later with “inciting religious hatred” and “violating the rights of citizens under the pretext of conducting religious rites.”

The authorities, who have ordered him held provisionally for three months, absurdly claim that he is an “imam” in the movement led by Fethullah Gülen, the US-based Turkish cleric now regarded by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the leading threat to his government.

The claim is based on the alleged discovery of books about the Gülen Movement’s philosophy in the trunk of Amirov’s car at the time of his arrest. The allegation has been greeted with widespread incredulity and well-known independent journalist Khadija Ismayilova commented: “They used to plant arms and drugs to frame critics, but now they have upgraded to planting books."

Planting drugs in the personal effects of government opponents and journalists is a much-used practice by Azerbaijan’s police. But as Amirov’s lawyer, Agil Layjev, has pointed out, these books are not banned in Azerbaijan.

“By borrowing Erdogan’s ‘hunt for Gülenists’ leitmotiv, the Azerbaijani authorities have found a great pretext for launching a new crackdown against their own critics, even if it is completely absurd,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“If any evidence was needed that last spring’s release of a few political prisoners was no more than a tactical concession, this is it. The international community must wake up and start pressing the government again to end the repression and restore pluralism – in other words, to just respect the undertakings it has given to its own citizens and to such bodies as the Council of Europe.”

In response to Amirov’s arrest, Azadlig issued a statement warning that its survival was threatened and calling for the broadest possible campaign against the crackdown. “The newspaper Azadlig will continue operating in these difficult conditions and will remain committed to freedom of expression until the end,” the statement concluded.

Azadlig has been persecuted in different ways for years and its situation is now very precarious. Its editor, Ganimat Zahid, has fled abroad, where he produces a satellite TV programme now labelled by the government media as “Gülenist”, signalling further pressure to come. The authorities harass his relatives who are still in Azerbaijan and several are in prison on trumped-up charges.

President Ilham Aliyev’s autocratic regime began stepping up arrests of government opponents in mid-August on the eve of an upcoming referendum on a proposal to reinforce the president’s powers yet again. The pretext of combatting the Gülen Movement is inspired by the witchhunt launched in Turkey after the 15 July coup attempt.

After being close allies for more than a decade, Erdogan and Gülen fell out and now Erdogan accuses Gülen of masterminding the attempted coup. The Azerbaijani authorities were similarly supportive of the Gülen Movement for a long time but now demonize it.

Azerbaijan is ranked 163rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 24.08.2016